Trump’s hot words will undo gains made to stop global warming


“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make the US manufacturing noncompetitive.” – Donald Trump, 11:15am, November 6 2012.

This tweet, and a whole range of other statements, give a glimpse into how Trump’s presidency will deal with the environment.

Appealing to a Republican electorate that does not believe the world is getting warmer because of human action, his campaign was littered with promises on what he would do to reverse gains made in tackling carbon emissions.

Here’s a snapshot of those promises: he has talked about getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because it gets in the way of business doing what it wants (this is the agency that ensures the air and water are clean); he has said he will repeal the EPA’s Clean Power plan, which seeks to lower carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations; and he wants to stop all government investment in renewable energy.

These moves are part of Trump’s attempts to make things easier for business, to bring back the industrial jobs that people who voted for him in Middle America have lost. In the Republican worldview, industries that emit pollutants and warm the environment are good for the economy and that means good for job creation.

Efforts to lower those emissions and stop global warming – which is driving droughts and crop failures across the world and seeing Florida (which voted Trump) recede beneath the waves – are the enemy of these endeavours.

That worldview is a problem because the Paris Agreement has just gone into force. This was brokered at COP21 last year, with the goal of ensuring global warming stops at 2°C this century.

The United States has become a world leader in tackling global warming.

It has committed to lowering its carbon emissions. President Barack Obama has made this a cornerstone of his second term, with agreements signed with China and other big emitters.

But the Paris Agreement is not legally binding because it could not get past a hostile Republican House.

Trump has said he will pull out of the Paris Agreement. That isn’t technically possible – with the agreement coming into force last week, the country can only pull out in four years’ time. Trump can, however, ensure the country does not meet any of its targets. Because it is not legally binding there is nothing that would stop him from doing so.

That action – and Trump’s rhetoric – will create a world in which the second-largest carbon emitter does not lower its emissions.

But 2016 is on target to be the hottest year in recorded history. The World Meteorological Organisation said this week that its data shows the world is 0.57°C hotter than it should be. The past five years have been the hottest ever recorded, with one being hotter than the next. Southern Africa is one degree hotter than average.

This, the organisation said, can be solidly nailed down to human emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases. Carbon levels in the atmosphere stood at 250 parts per million when the Industrial Revolution kicked off two centuries ago. They now stand at 400 parts per million.

Action on ensuring global warming is slowed down is more critical now than ever before.

The Paris Agreement went some way towards getting countries to acknowledge the danger of this warming and the need to do something about it. A similar agreement was drafted in the 1990s: the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol was intended to lower carbon emissions. That was driven by a Clinton presidency, but then George W Bush pulled the US out of the protocol. This put climate diplomacy and action back by a decade.

Trump ignoring commitments under the Paris Agreement could have the same effect.

Other countries could also take it as a reason to dodge their commitments. Countries such as South Africa – where warming is double the world average – would be faced with rapid warming in the next two decades. More droughts. More floods. An unpredictable climate that makes farming difficult and destroys ecosystems.

But there’s hope. Most countries are already taking action to lower emissions. Mega-emitters China and India are tackling their carbon emissions because air quality is a big political problem, and climate change is already affecting their economies. Even in the US, large states such as California are unilaterally acting on lowering emissions.

Trump’s rhetoric will damage work to lower carbon emissions. That will disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable.

And the US could lose jobs as green industries go elsewhere.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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